“I was a roadie for the Smithereens,” Elliot explains via phone from his Sarasota home. He brings Nada Surf to the Beachland at 8 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 23. “[The Smithereens] went to the [New York studio] Magic Shop to record, which sadly closed down. Bowie made his last record there. I went in there with the Smithereens, and Matthew was working the front desk. He was making the coffee and answering the phone.”
Not too long after that, Nada Surf started making its first demos with original drummer Aaron Conte. When Conte split with the group, the guys tracked Elliot down.
“They originally sent me a cassette, and I loved it,” Elliot recalls. “And then I was in. I was all in.”
Things quickly turned topsy-turvy as the catchy tune “Popular” become a hit, turning the group into an overnight sensation.
“It was pretty breathtaking. It happened very quickly,” says Elliot. “I joined the band in January of February of 1995, and we were making that record with [producer] Ric Ocasek, and it went like a gunshot out of our hands. We were picked up quickly. The band had a great energy. The song went off like a bomb. We made the record and by the summer it was full-tilt boogie.”
“Indie guys by nature,” band members often bristled at some of the ways in which they had to push the album. But when it came time to recording the follow-up, they set out to do things their own way. That didn’t go over well with the suits at Elektra, and the label subsequently dropped the group without releasing its follow-up, The Proximity Effect
, though the label did service critics with an advance release that ironically generated a good amount of buzz.
“When we made the whole record, it was a classic ‘we don’t hear a single,’” says Elliot of The Proximity Effect
. “We were disappointed. We played ball and recorded this song that wasn’t ours. We liked it but didn’t love it. They were determined it would be a single on the radio. We decided to play the game. No one was interested in playing that song. We were quietly happy, but we wanted to promote the song that we wanted to be the single. They didn’t like that. That was the end of our relationship with them.”
And yet the band has continued to be a presence on the indie rock scene. After releasing 2012’s The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy
, the group, which now includes guitarist and former Clevelander Doug Gillard, took a bit of a break. Last year, it returned with You Know Who You Are
, another sharp collection of power-pop tunes. Caws worked on some songs with Semisonic’s Dan Wilson, a guy who now makes his living writing songs.
“He wanted a little of input from a pro songwriter input from a guy like Dan, who’s a song doctor par excellence,” says Elliot. “He met with him to see what they could come up with. They wrote two or maybe three songs together. That was an experience that Matthew wanted to have. He described how he would present him with chords and melody, and Dan would go away and change a few notes in the melody and make it arguably better. How you place a melody against a lyric really makes a huge difference. You place a certain note on a high note. He went over technical stuff like that. If you’re self-trained, you might not think about phrasing and how to use a melody to highlight certain phrases. Dan has a natural ability to do that.”
As is the case with many Nada Surf tunes, the music is upbeat, but the lyrics aren’t.
“That’s a typical Nada Surf-ism,” explains Elliot. “We’re trying to match dark and light together. that’s a classic trope that we’re always mining. The one we always think about is [Joy Division’s] ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart.’ If you just take the melody, it’s like a nursery rhyme. It’s really innocuous. It’s kind of sweet but when you place those dark lyrics about the relationship ending and the fact that no one is talking to each other, and it’s cold and everything is falling apart, it places this yin yang thing together."
He says Nada Surf aims to place the "positive against the negative."
"That’s always an ongoing thing," he says. "It runs through Matthew’s personality. He would always say stuff like he’s positive in the near term but negative in the long term. Or he’s hopeful about the next five minutes but not the next week. It comes in ways. I don’t know if he seems himself as an optimist or pessimist. I think he vacillates between the two. I’m a natural born optimist, so I just go along for the ride.”
The group has experienced all the highs and lows that can make many bands splinter. So what’s been the key to keeping it together?
“We love it,” says Elliot. “It’s the greatest job in the world. I’m a 53-year-old drummer in a rock band. What other job could I do that’s better than this? It’s grueling and takes you away from your family. It’s tough as you get older. Jet leg lasts longer. You have to deal with the daily complexities of being a musician on the road. It’s a mind set. It’s not always high luxury. I try to approach it like a teenager. There’s always something but where can you get that kind of pleasure of performing on the other side of the world in front of a thousand or two thousand people. On a basic artistic level, you can’t beat it.”
He says Caws still writes some of the sharpest tunes he's ever heard too.
“I like to think the best stuff is just around the corner,” he says. “I never think our glory days are behind us. I still think we’re capable of pulling a rabbit out of the hat. It’s always exciting. When you make a new record, it’s a combination of starting all over at the beginning and challenging yourself. It remains a fun creative exploit. We’re having a good time.”
Nada Surf, Amber Arcades, 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 23, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $20 ADV, #22 DOS, beachlandballroom.com.
Nada Surf drummer Ira Elliot first met his current band mates, singer-guitarist Matthew Caws and bassist Daniel Lorca, in the ’80s. They had seen his band the Fuzztones play and counted him as an acquaintance.